When Rupa Singh purchased a bag of imported spicy potato chips from a local Indian grocery store in Brampton, she had no idea just two chips would send her daughter into anaphylactic shock.
Singh’s 15-year-old daughter has a life-threatening allergy to milk protein. An anaphylactic reaction can be life-threatening, and means her throat swells up and it gets very difficult to breathe if she consumes products that contain the protein.
“Had I not been home, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” said Singh, adding she leapt into action to administer an EpiPen to save her daughter.
After her daughter’s condition improved, Singh grabbed the packet of Uncle Chipps and noticed the original packaging’s ingredients and nutritional information had been covered with a second label. When she removed the label, she saw that “milk solids” was listed in the original packaging’s ingredients list.
That’s when she decided to file a complaint with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“How is the agency in Canada allowing for misleading packages?” Singh said.
2019 legislation meant to address imported food issues
While the situation was scary enough for Singh and her family, it’s far from uncommon when it comes to imported international products, food distribution and policy researcher Sylvain Charlebois says.
“This is a really common problem in Canada, and the Safe Foods for Canadians Act was actually brought forward to address these issues,” he said.
“Importers need to comply with labeling regulations in Canada, so that would be a breach,” he said of Singh’s incident. “The companies are responsible for making sure that labels are accurate.”
The Safe Foods for Canadians Act was introduced in 2019 with the goal of improving food safety oversight for imported international foods. One of the ways it aims to achieve that is by requiring stringent licensing for food importers and allowing the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to trace imports.
Charlesbois says the CFIA should be able to identify the importer responsible for a given mislabelled product.
“They have the data, they have the information, and they can trace back the product to an importer specifically and hold that importer accountable,” Charlebois said.
When contacted by CBC News, CFIA did not reference Singh’s complaint but instead provided a statement on what enforcement and accountability measures it takes when there is a breach.
“When there is a violation of federal requirements, CFIA has the authority to require correction of misleading labels, seize and detain non-compliant food or order the removal or destruction of imported foods that do not meet Canadian requirements,” CFIA spokesperson Patrick Girard wrote .
“When non-compliance occurs and certain conditions are met, the CFIA may take action on Safe Food for Canadians Regulations license holders by suspending or canceling their licence.”
CFIA asks consumers to report mislabelled products
The CFIA had proposed updating food labeling requirements in 2019 but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Girard said, it had to delay its proposed label changes.
The agency asks consumers who suspect a food product is mislabelled or otherwise unsafe to report it at CFIA’s website and inquire with the company directly using the mandatory contact information on the label.
Singh has not yet heard back from CFIA, and she said she was too traumatized to go back to the local grocery store to inform them of the mislabelled product.
Meanwhile, Indian Punjabi Bazaar, the grocery store from where Singh purchased the potato chips, told CBC News it was not informed of the mislabelled product.
“We’ve had no other incidents or complaints from customers about if the product was mislabelled,” the store wrote in an email. “Situations where a product is covered with another label is to make the product eligible to be sold by Canadian standards done by the supplier or importer.”
But Charlebois says the 2019 Safe Food for Canadians Act means that CFIA should have a list of importers, so they can trace the importer that labeled the food products incorrectly.
“This person went through an unfortunate order and can’t get any sort of reassurance from our own federal agency as to how the situation can be prevented in the future,” Charlebois said.
CFIA said when it’s gone through with laying charges and a conviction, that information is made public to inform consumers. It did not comment further on Singh’s case.
For her part, Singh awaits an update on her complaint.
“Nutrition labels are supposed to help you, they’re supposed to guide you and inform you what you’re putting inside your mouth,” Singh said.
“And if it’s misleading, then I don’t know what to say.”